Over the years in blogs, workshops and talks, I have explored the art of being wrong and why it is so healthy. It seems it is time yet again, to shine a light on the rightness of our wrongness.

It is a fact that progress, such as humans have made it – has been ever driven not by being right but by being wrong, recognising it and adjusting our trajectory.

In centuries past, few people had access to information at all and those that did often used it as political or religious tool to exert control over the masses.(Whether the information was correct is another story.)

We all like to think we are well informed and not prone to outdated or erroneous thinking, so when I say emphatically that being wrong is healthy, people often look at me like I’m a little bit odd.

It has taken the whole of human history to arrive at a point where we can instantly compare our world view to known facts and correct ourselves but for some people it has also provided the capability to be convincingly wrong by searching the Web and finding legions of others who believe in the same nonsense.

The Internet has at once, provided source knowledge to the seeker and validation to the vacuous. For the latter, ‘Groupthink’ has become their new ‘happy place’.

Some time ago I was watching one of my favourite satirical news shows “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” where he was featuring a book called ‘Wiser’ and interviewing the author Cass Sunstein.

Stewart has a knack for dissecting US and World news and often eviscerating, with humour, disingenuous politicians and public figures usually by showing clips of them exhibiting self-serving and intellectually bankrupt behaviour by changing their political positions and ‘heartfelt beliefs’ for personal gain.

Mind you, I am not talking about gaining new information, realising you are wrong and changing your mind, rather it is when position change is adopted as a form of cynical manipulation, in order to take advantage of the brief nature of public memory.

In ‘Wiser – Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter’ Sunstein explores the influence of our personal networks on how we see the world and what struck me was not any startling new insight but rather the stunningly unsurprising conclusions researchers have reached about human behaviour and how we form or change our opinions.

The research he quotes, found that in a group with diverse opinions, the overall mentality and range of opinions will be moderated to a more centrist approach but when people are separated into like-minded groups they tend to veer fairly rapidly towards the extreme version of their belief systems.

If you tend to conservative thinking you will become more so and vice versa.

So is it “Well done Captain Obvious?” Not so fast.

Radical mobs and witch hunters have been demonstrating this behaviour for centuries but in the modern age, it is somewhat surprising to see it still so entrenched.

It seems that having more information available to us, particularly via the Internet has for some people, not made them more able to evaluate the validity of their own opinions by seeking reliable facts but rather able to seek out people who agree with them in order to make them more comfortable in a world that may be at odds with their current reality.

People can find any amount of seemingly credible information to support their views and this can lead to unnecessary arguments.

Standing on either side of a wall lobbing epithets or bombs at each-other is a stupid and fundamentally unproductive way of finding solutions to problems, be they industrial, social or political.

Negotiation and compromise or bargaining is the only way to gain long term benefit for the population at large because the vast majority of us have everything in common and live at the centre of the political spectrum not the fringes.

There is value in understanding the arguments of both sides of political, industrial and economic debates but this can only be found if we take the first step by realising that our current belief systems may not be correct or well-informed enough.

The irony of some extreme viewpoints is that they are terrified of evidence-based science and solidly established facts and often imagine vast conspiracies of evil (but oddly relatively poorly-paid) scientists coordinating vast disinformation campaigns to enslave ‘the people’ (how is unclear) yet Science is one of the only areas of human endeavour where people MAKE their careers and reputations by finding evidence to prove that the current position is incorrect.

They actually earn Degrees in Debunking! This is called The Scientific Method and relies on demonstrable evidence – not personal beliefs.

Any new theory has to make it through a Peer Review process where other scientists do their very best to destroy it by finding conflicting evidence or flaws in the process but if after this intellectual feeding frenzy has run its course the evidence still stacks up, it becomes the new factual basis for the next stage of research.

The key is that ‘opinions’ or ‘interpretations’ don’t cut it.

In science a cornerstone belief system can be shattered with a single new discovery and the scientific community picks itself up, dusts itself off and moves on to using this new information to expand our knowledge.

Scientists have to be prepared to be wrong. Very publically wrong – their theories, published papers and books debunked and yet take the new information, suck it up and keep going.

If only the rest of us could be so enlightened.

Unfortunately, the self-perpetuating ‘Groupthink’ that Sunstein describes in ‘Wiser’ seems to be much more pervasive than we may realise.

Pavlovian headlines shout for us all to act as one – that is to suspend critical thinking and act with our hearts and not our heads.

Instead when we feel instinctively emotional about an event, this visceral stab into the core of our emotions should be a warning sign to us to take a breath and investigate – not to swallow whole the hype. The more it hurts the more we should wait and think and investigate.

When the truth comes out, we then need to evaluate it against our previously held position and learn from any discrepancy. If it requires changing our opinions or correcting our statements, then so be it. It is a mark of integrity to say “I was wrong’ and a mark of cowardice to remain silent or cling to an untenable position..

If leaders do not have the courage to change their opinions based on new evidence, then our society is in real danger but here’s the rub – we as thinking people, must allow them to room to make corrections without being pilloried.

Remember, it took until 1992 (382 years) for the Catholic Church to admit that Galileo was right because it was fearful of diminishing its authority by showing it was fallible…

Any time an institution, society or individual seeks to preserve its power, wealth or position rather than acknowledging it is in error, it begins a process of dishonesty and corruption that will end in its downfall.

Interestingly, when we have the courage to re-evaluate our beliefs, no matter how strongly held, based on new information we become stronger not weaker.

So what do we do when we encounter people advocating clearly erroneous thinking?

I mean, haven’t we all been told that we have to respect other people’s beliefs?

Well that is part of the problem.We do not have to, nor should we – respect other people beliefs. Beliefs are not facts.

There are people out there who believe they are doing ‘Gods work’ by murdering others and I certainly do not respect their beliefs. They are clearly insane.

Rather, in a democratic society we must respect the right of all citizens to hold whatever beliefs they choose because this is a fundamental feature of free speech and freedom of expression but it does not protect them from critique. In fact challenging beliefs is the basis for democracy.

When we encounter people peddling what is clearly nonsense the best thing to do is play Socrates and ask lots of questions like: What evidence do you have to support that? or “Who told you that was true? and “Who told them?” Or ‘Did you know that the evidence shows that to be incorrect?”

As thoughtful members of society, parents, employees and humans, we must be willing to calmly challenge our own beliefs and those of others as new information becomes available. It is the only path to progress, peace and stability.

In an age where we can instantly compare our current beliefs against an enormity of reliable research and factual rational sources, there is no excuse not to prove ourselves wrong on a regular basis.

After all, how many adults still believe in Santa Clause?